Should Britain have a Written Constitution?


Currently Britain has an unwritten constitution which has evolved over many centuries to reach where it is today. Some people feel that the system that we have today is perfectly adequate, while others think we should adopt a written constitution. There are arguments for and against in both cases.


Charter 88 is a charter written by those who feel, ‘the time has come to demand political, civil and human rights in the United Kingdom’, and who feel that this will only happen when Britain adopts a written constitution. They think that a bill of rights is necessary for the enshrinement of civil liberties such as the right to peaceful assembly, the freedom of association, the freedom from discrimination and so on. They argue that while the government is above the law, the country cannot be considered to be free.


On the other hand, constitutional conservatives would argue that there is no need to reform the constitution as it is serving the country well with a system of checks and balances between the government and pressure groups. A written constitution is not necessarily going to be better than an unwritten constitution if the government is corrupt anyway, eg: in the old Soviet union, despite having a written constitution, it was worthless because the government didn’t adhere to it.


Another argument for a written constitution is accessibility. A bill of rights could easily be contained in one document which could be bought and understood by anyone. Provided they can understand the language used, any citizen of that country knows what their basic civil liberties are. The containment of a constitution in a single document is only possible when it is codified as it has generally always been contained in one document with few changes and alterations made to it. An uncodified constitution has generally taken so long to evolve and is contained in little bits in many different sources that it is inaccessible to a normal citizen and extremely difficult to comprehend.


Arguably, one of the best, and worst, points of an uncodified constitution is its flexibility. It can respond easily and quickly to new situations, eg: when Britain joined the EU a new source of the constitution was added which challenged the idea of parliamentary sovereignty, but because the British constitution is uncodified no special amendments had to pass through in order to accept this. In contrast a written constitution must often go through a long procedure, often contained in the constitution itself, in order to make amendments. The downside to this flexibility is that civil liberties which have taken years to come into practice, could be wiped out over night by a government as parliament is sovereign. Tomorrow parliament could withdraw from the EU and say that women lose the right to vote or that it is acceptable to discriminate because of race. Legally there is nothing stopping them from doing so.


Many people support constitutional reform but do not want the restrictions of a written constitution. Consequently this is being put into action by the government. Laws are passed to protect minority groups, people are allowed to assemble peacefully. Many saw the hereditary peers in the house of lords as being antiquated, old fashioned and in need of reform. Labour did reform the House of Lords by introducing the ‘people’s peers’ system.


The current law system in Britain is not based on a system of rights, but on a system of things which aren’t forbidden. If someone can find an act that isn’t illegal then they can do it without being prosecuted. If however, someone finds something to do that they do not know is illegal and are arrested for it ignorance of the law is not an excuse. Despite the laws of the country being wildly inaccessible to most citizens it is assumed we know them all and will act accordingly. Our society is based on a ‘freedom to…’ system. We have the freedom to do certain things. Other societies, based on a written constitution, are based on a ‘freedom from…’ system. Their constitution gives them, for example, freedom from racism.


Overall both types of constitution have good and bad points. The main good points for a written constitution are its accessibility and comprehensiveness. An